Teacher’s Rights in the Classroom as COVID Cases Rise
By Joshua C. Black, Esq.
COVID-19 cases among children are on the rise. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported more than 121,000 cases last week alone, amounting to roughly 18% of all newly reported COVID-19 cases.
Many health experts attribute the increase in cases to the Delta variant as well as a return to school for students 12 and under who are too young to be vaccinated. Teachers are also at an increased risk of exposure. In schools, germs are easily passed from student to student and student to teacher because of the close proximity of most classrooms and high student-to-teacher ratios.
Now that the school year is underway, many wonder what exactly are a teacher’s rights in the classroom?
Can Arizona teachers mandate students wear masks in the classroom?
Unfortunately, not at this time. Teachers can model good hygiene and mask-wearing behavior, but in Arizona, teachers in most public schools cannot require their students wear face masks. Teachers’ authority in the classroom is delegated by their school or district, so they need to check with their school before implementing classroom mandates – not only regarding masks but covering a plethora of other classroom issues as well.
There are exceptions, if a school leaves it up to the teacher to decide if their classroom will have a mask mandate, then it is likely legal for teachers to exercise the authority the school gave them and require students to wear masks while in the classroom.
Are there legal ramifications if a teacher gets COVID from a student?
If a teacher gets COVID from a student while at a school function, it would likely be considered a "workplace injury" and be covered by workers' compensation. There would not likely be any other legal ramifications for any party in that situation.
Workers’ compensation would not normally cover a virus, however during the pandemic, many states have extended it to cover COVID-19 for certain essential workers, like teachers. Educators who contract COVID-19 on the job should check whether they are eligible for workers’ compensation in their state.
What can teachers do if they disagree with their employer’s COVID protocol?
If teachers believe their school's COVID protocol is not up to the standards recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or state government, the teacher can complain to the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH) or reach out to an employment attorney for help.
This school year teachers can protect themselves by keeping up-to-date on the most recent guidelines and suggestions about COVID safety from agencies such as the CDC and state and local governments.
Teachers should follow all district or school policies related to social distancing, sanitizing and quarantining. They also should ensure they aren’t taking any unnecessary risks outside of the job that could leave them vulnerable to contracting this highly-contagious virus. Lastly, transparency at work regarding exposure and symptoms is crucial to avoiding any unnecessary issues affecting the safety of teachers, their co-workers and their students.
The legal landscape regarding COVID guidelines, rules and regulations is changing rapidly and in real time. States have modified laws, governors have issued executive orders and the Federal government is weighing options to enforce mask mandates in schools. Teachers need to advocate for themselves and their students. The best way to do this is to stay abreast of guidelines recommended by reputable organizations such as the CDC and World Health Organization.
If you have any questions about COVID-19 mandates, or your rights in the workplace, contact the Law Office of Joshua Black, PLC, at (623) 738-2225.